by Geoff Larcom, Published May 11, 2012
Benjamin White received a terrific surprise the morning of Thursday, May 10.
YPSILANTI - White, an undergraduate student in the Eastern Michigan University Department of Special Education, had been expecting to speak on the phone with someone from U.S. Department of Education regarding his preparation to become a teacher. The department was talking to students as part of national Teacher Appreciation Week.
Instead, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got on the line. White was one of only four teachers or students Duncan contacted throughout the country this week, to thank them for their service and commitment to the profession.
White, who is 26, felt a jolt of excitement to suddenly be speaking to the country's top education official.
He says Duncan told him how important White's work is, especially because there are so few men, and particularly men of color such as White, in education.
Duncan also asked White how America can recruit other teachers.
Replied White: "I think we need people who are passionate about education. We need to give people opportunities to get in front of kids and see what it's like to be a teacher."
White noted to the secretary that he never expected to become a teacher, although his mother has been an educator for many years.
But, after he worked as a teacher assistant in several schools, helping teachers implement lesson plans and monitor behavior plans, he came to view teaching and special education as a calling.
Particularly moving were White's experiences in working with students with autism.
"My passion grew for special education," he says now. "I want to be a positive black role model to all students, not just to black students."
White, a senior from Rochester, Michigan, expects to graduate from Eastern in the fall of 2014 with a degree in special education and cognitive impairment. He hopes to get a job as a teacher, as well as to work on his Master's degree. White transferred to EMU after earning an associate's degree from Oakland Community College in social work and mental health.
He carries a 3.6 grade point average at EMU, and recently received the prestigious Brehm Scholarship. The endowed scholarship is awarded to students in the EMU Department of Special Education who represent the best and brightest in the program.
White is active in the Student Council for Exceptional Children at EMU, and has also participated in that organization at the state and national level, activities that helped land him on Secretary Duncan's radar.
Through such involvement, White was able to help in bringing Alexa Posny, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, to EMU last fall to speak about the importance of recruiting and retaining committed and highly qualified teachers.
Phil Smith, Special Education Department head at EMU, notes that students with disabilities are often forgotten about in schools - put in separate classrooms, eating by themselves at lunch, left out of recess games.
"Not so much because of their disability, but because of how we see them - we think they're broken," Smith says.
But Smith says White has a vision of including students with disabilities into general education classrooms, to make sure that they're not forgotten about and not left out.
"And even more important than his vision is his passion," Smith says of White. "He knows that this is a social justice issue, a moral issue, a human rights issue. He saw that working as a paraprofessional in schools. And he wants to make it happen."
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Founded in 1849 as the first "normal school" west of the Alleghenies, Eastern Michigan University is one of the largest producers of educational personnel in the country.
The College of Education at EMU provides exceptional leadership in education. Its graduates are highly sought by school districts and other employers, and its alumni have achieved many recognitions and positions of prominence.
The College offers a comprehensive range of programs-bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees (many with online and off-campus options)-and extensive non-degree and certification learning experiences.
All professional education programs are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and approved by the Michigan Department of Education. Many programs hold an additional national recognition. College of Education Departments include: Leadership & Counseling, Special Education and Teacher Education.